Sex, stars and screen ratings: influence of 'Late Late' still a hot topic 50 years on
IT’S 1964. There’s not much on the television on a Saturday night. The Virginian. Nuacht. And then The Late Late Show. And there’s not much on that either.
The guests were poor, said the critics, and the discussions tedious. After two years the panellists were predictable, the production standards terrible. It compared badly with UK chat shows.
According to The Irish Times, the guests were “not always as happily chosen as the singing Holmes family from Aughrim, who appeared last Saturday, the sprightly nun from Australia, with her music-hall turn, and the humorous travelling bard”.
And the presenter? Time for a change. Frank Hall – the overlooked second host of the show, who stepped in during Gay Byrne’s brief sabbatical to the BBC – left, supposedly, due to the pressure of work. But there was also the pressure of the critics, who wondered quite what the point of the show was.
Tonight The Late Late Show will celebrate its 50th anniversary. We know the statistics – longest-running chat show in the world; consistently the highest-rated in Ireland – but we can also reel off the criticisms.
Poor guests. Dull discussions. Predictable topics. Compares badly with UK shows. And the presenter? Time for a change.
You could take a random sample of TV reviews from much of its history and find those complaints. There was a period, during its middle years, when it and Byrne had firmly established its greatness on Irish television, when the brickbats eased off a little, but long before he left the show in 1999, its “glory days” were considered to be gone.
And yet it endures. Tonight’s show – which features Byrne and Pat Kenny, as well as Liam Neeson, Imelda May and Daniel O’Donnell – may revel in those past glories, but we can presume that it will be a celebration of both its survival and its future.
The critics have proclaimed its death so many times that, despite its apparent flaws, it must feel indestructible. Or, at least, immovable.
Its influence on Irish life over its 50 years – or more accurately, during its first quarter century – remains a subject of lively discussion. The show was a recurring feature in Diarmaid Ferriter’s recent Occasions of Sin: Sex and Society in Modern Ireland, in which he examined Oliver J Flanagan’s oft-quoted claim there was no sex in Ireland before television, and which is usually affixed to the Late Late. Ferriter concluded that a generation would have gone through their lives without hearing a discussion about sex were it not for the chat show.
Yet its many, many hours of airtime have meant much of its banality has been forgotten in the collective memory, with columnist John Waters once moved to remark that it was only “afterwards, in the days following certain shows, rather than on the screen on Saturday or, later, Friday night, that the legend was created”.
True or not, its influence remains undeniable by sheer virtue of its viewership.
“Probably no society anywhere had such a high proportion of its population watching such a programme,” writes John Bowman in his history of RTÉ, Window and Mirror. “That it achieved this over many decades underscores its extraordinary reach.”
That remains the case. Just as its struggles with ratings were being reported last year, its Toy Show – a unique TV phenomenon in itself – became the most watched programme in Ireland since 1994, with more than 1.4 million viewers for the second year running.
Even in an ordinary month, it is either the most watched, or runner-up, in the Irish ratings. So far this year only Mrs Brown’s Boys and last week’s Eurovision have been more popular.
In some ways its success is its problem. Stretched out over a couple of hours, broadcast live, with a standard demand for a decent guest, an illness of the week, a topical slot and a musical turn or three, it struggles terribly at times. It has done much the same since the early days, when it was required to fill only an hour of airtime.
Yet it brings in lucrative sponsorship – Liberty Insurance has taken over Quinn Group’s €1 million deal – and its advertising slots are the most attractive in Irish broadcasting. Its popularity spikes when Irish guests appear, so it can argue that Hollywood star wattage isn’t what always lights up the show.
Meanwhile, after a strong start, Ryan Tubridy comes under continual fire, and appears somewhat worn down by it. Like Pat Kenny before him, he seems to be settling into a tenure in which he must talk over the hecklers. He cancelled his Twitter account as an early sign of his intent to block them out wherever possible.
However, both have followed Gay Byrne, whose own missteps were outweighed by the excellence in which he facilitated a national conversation; in how he knew by how much to push the boundaries and when that opportunity was presenting itself. Byrne has been so integral to the Late Late’s reputation that even his return (not for the first time) tonight causes minor tremors. It’s like Sean Connery doing a walk-on part in the latest James Bond.
Perhaps the decision to keep the Late Late Show without Byrne meant setting a course for choppy waters without any hope of reaching calm. But maybe the Irish don’t want it any other way. Its survival is most visible through the Twitter stream that flows every Friday night, and will do so with particular force tonight.
“I think they get a kick out of it,” says current producer Michael Kealy. “I mean, if they hate it that much, why would they watch it?”
Fifty years on, it’s the one question this chat show keeps posing.
5 of the Best
1 The Bishop and the Nightie (1966)
There was no bishop. Or nightie. But after the Bishop of Clonfert alerted the media to a follow-up sermon, an innocuous line during a Mr & Mrs-style quiz became its most famous controversy.
2 Pádraig Flynn (1999)
His famously arrogant display - disparaging Tom Gilmartin, mentioning his three houses and housekeepers - had a major impact on the planning tribunal.
3 Terry Keane (1999)
A riveting, seminal interview in which the journalist spoke about her affair with Charles Haughey.
4 Brendan Gleeson (2006)
The actor appeared as a routine star guest, but became highly emotional regarding the state of the health service.
5 Pat Kenny rips up a prize (2008)
An unimpressed winner wasn't "particularly interested" in Toy Show tickets. The host ripped them up in a delightfully controlled tantrum.
5 OF THE WORST
1 .The Brian Lenihan Tribute (1990)
Broadcast only weeks before the presidential election campaign, it drew predictable anger from the opposition, but it might also have begun the steady erosion of his prospects.
2 Annie Murphy (1992
Gay Byrne's remark that her and Bishop Éamon Casey's son would be fine if he was "half the man his father" was. "I'm not so bad either," she said, before getting up and leaving.
3 Peter Brooke (1992)
Then secretary of state for Northern Ireland was encouraged to sing My Darling Clementine hours after the massacre of seven people at Teebane, seriously eroding his position.
4 Mel B (2001
If any moment demonstrated Pat Kenny's struggle to hit the right tone, it was inviting Scary Spice to sit on his lap, then asking her about her work with abused women.
5 Paul McGrath (2012)
An interview that demonstrated Ryan Tubridy's limitations. Sticking to a rigid chronology, he treated McGrath as if his life was almost solely about drink and drugs.